Hartley Shawcross was an MP and member of the House of Lords (he was knighted in 1945, and appointed GBE in 1974), but 'it was his performance as Chief Prosecutor for the United Kingdom at the Nuremberg war crimes trial that was to be his greatest claim to fame.' He entered the Commons in 1945 and became Attorney-General in the Labour government of Clement Attlee. Later he moved to the political right joining the conservative moral campaigners the Responsible Society in the early 1970s and supporting the Countryside Alliance in 2002.
Shawcross made his name at the Nuremberg tribunal. The Telegraph obituary reported:
- Hartley Shawcross's five-hour opening speech at Nuremberg set out the legal justification for the proceedings. He showed that the Tribunal, far from being an instrument of vengeance set up by the victors, was administering rules of international law which had been established before the war, with the full concurrence of Germany. The writer Rebecca West described his final address as "full of living pity, which gave the men in the box their worst hour". Even the accused admired his intellectual grasp.
- In 1974 Shawcross spoke on television about the men he had prosecuted at Nuremberg. Most of the defendants, he remembered, were the sort of people you would see on the Clapham omnibus, except for Hess and Ribbentrop, who looked rather more miserable.
- But Goering, Shawcross recalled, was quite different, a formidable personality and "agreeable" to boot. Taken off the bottle and drugs by his captors, he proved a formidable adversary, capable of running rings round Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor - though David Maxwell Fyfe somewhat redeemed the situation. Shawcross remembered how he had to be careful not to catch Goering's eye when he ran into difficulties. The former Reichsmarschall would "raise his eyebrow and shake his head in a rather smiling way, and it would be very difficult not to smile back".
- Shawcross's success in obtaining convictions at Nuremberg was achieved despite his objection to capital punishment - a principle which can only have been enhanced by the inept performance of the American hangman: Ribbentrop was left flailing in the air for 20 minutes.
- Nevertheless, Albert Speer was convinced by Shawcross's claim that he did not deserve to live. "I knew that the Russians would demand the death sentence for me," Speer remembered, "and after Shawcross's speech I thought they were right. How could we - just we - be allowed to remain alive after that?" Subsequently, Shawcross wanted to build on the precedent of Nuremberg and establish a permanent international tribunal to try war crimes. But when the question of prosecuting Second World War criminals was raised again in 1990, Shawcross stoutly resisted it as an act which would constitute an "indelible blot upon every principle of British law and justice". War crimes, he observed, were not confined to the enemy.
- Hartley William Shawcross was born on February 4 1902 at Giessen, in Germany, where his father was Professor of English Literature. Shawcross pere was also the leading English authority on Goethe and Schiller.
- The family seems to have originated in Denmark and settled in the 14th century at a village called Shallcross in Derbyshire. Subsequently, Shawcrosses were established in Cheshire and Lancashire; Hartley's grandfather was a millowner who was three times mayor of Rochdale.
- Shortly after Hartley's birth, his parents returned to England, and settled in London, with a cottage in Ashdown Forest, Sussex. The boy was brought up in the stern Liberal tradition, as befitted one whose mother had worked for John Bright. His formal education took place at Dulwich and at Geneva University.
- Very early in life he developed Labour sympathies, and at 16 he was acting as ward secretary for Labour in the Central Wandsworth constituency. Originally intending to become a doctor, he changed course after Herbert Morrison told him that the Bar was the best training for a fledgling politician.
- Though he achieved first place in the Bar final examinations, Shawcross found briefs hard to come by during his first three years in London. Relief came in 1927 in the form of a part-time lectureship at Liverpool University, which he doubled with a practice on the northern circuit.
- Joining another future Attorney-General, David Maxwell Fyfe, in Liverpool chambers, Shawcross built up the leading junior practice on the Northern circuit, gaining experience across the whole gamut of advocacy, from motor accidents to murder.
- Sober and meticulous in court, Shawcross gave hints of a repressed theatrical sense: on Saturday mornings, accompanied by a vast St Bernard, he would appear in his Liverpool chambers dressed in canary pullover, light brown tweeds and - then a startling novelty - suede shoes. He also owned a Railton coupe of great speed, and an eight-metre yacht at his house in Cornwall. In 1939 he took Silk and was elected a Bencher of Gray's Inn.
- Shawcross had enrolled on the Emergency Reserve of Officers in 1938, but was subsequently rejected due to an old spinal injury. In 1939 he was appointed chairman of an Enemy Aliens Tribunal, and posted to Hampstead.
- From 1941 to 1945 he was Recorder of Salford, the youngest Recorder ever appointed. From 1940, though, Shawcross abandoned his practice for government service.
- He became Regional Commissioner for the North-Western Region from 1942 to 1945, and chairman of the Catering Wages Commission from 1943 to 1945. In 1946 he was appointed Recorder of Kingston upon Thames in 1946 (remaining until 1961).
- After his appointment as Attorney-General, Shawcross led for the prosecution at several famous trials - notably those of William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw") for high treason, of John George Haigh for the murder of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, and of Klaus Fuchs for betraying secrets on atomic research to Russian agents. Shawcross had some hopes of succeeding Lord Goddard as Lord Chief Justice, but Goddard stayed so long in the office that they remained unfulfilled.
- As chairman of the Bar Council from 1952 to 1957, Shawcross was prominently involved when the Council came under pressure in 1957 for the use that had been made of information obtained by "tapping" telephone conversations. Shawcross was criticised for having passed on the content of these conversations to the Council, but argued that he had the authority of the Home Office for doing so; the motion against him was withdrawn.
- In 1959 he was appointed an independent member of the Monckton Advisory Commission in Central Africa. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had promised Sir Roy Welensky that the commission should exclude the possibility of secession from the Central African Federation, but he was able to enlist Shawcross as the lone Labour member only by agreeing in private that secession would not be excluded. As it turned out, ill-health forced Shawcross to resign after only a few months.
- His chairmanship of the Royal Commission on the Press in 1961 and 1962 reflected his concern for the standards of journalism. In 1967 he became one of the directors of The Times responsible for ensuring its editorial independence, but he resigned on being appointed chairman of the Press Council in 1974.
- In this office, which he held for four years, Shawcross was forthright in his condemnation both of journalists who committed excesses and of proprietors who profited from them. He also proved a doughty defender of press freedom. In October 1974 he poured scorn on a Labour Party pamphlet that recommended the application of "internal democracy" to editorial policy.
- "This means," he stated, "that. . . there would be some sort of committee consisting at the best of a mixture of van drivers, press operators, electricians and the rest, with no doubt a few journalists, but more probably composed of trade union officials, to deal with editorial policy."
- In a foreword to a report by Justice, the all-party lawyers' group, he called for a new Bill of Rights - "a new Magna Carta for the Little Man" - to ensure his right not to be pushed around by government officials.
- From 1969 to 1980 Shawcross was chairman of the Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers. His puritanical nature was outraged by the activities of the City slickers, and he expressed frustration that his powers did not always allow him to bring the "evil-doers" to account.
- Shawcross observed that those of his friends who retired tended to feature in the obituaries columns shortly afterwards, and he succeeded in postponing that accolade by accepting a multitude of appointments. By his own reckoning "a bit of a hypochondriac", he was chairman of the Medical Research Council from 1961 to 1965, and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1965 he joined Morgan Guaranty Trust, serving as chairman of its International Advisory Council from 1967 to 1974, and afterwards as a special adviser.
- Shawcross was Chancellor of Sussex University from 1965 to 1985, and chairman of the Board of Governors of Dulwich College. He was president of the British Hotels' and Restaurants' Association (1959 to 1971), and chairman of Thames Television (1969 to 1974).
- He also collected an impressive series of directorships, among them at Shell (1961-72); EMI (1965-81); Rank-Hovis McDougall (1965-79); Times Newspapers (1967-74); BSA (1968-73); Hawker Siddeley Group (1968-82); and the Observer (1981-93).
After his appearance as Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Shawcross took up the post of principal British delegate to the United Nations, where he again won admiration, this time for his ruthless exposure of the Soviet foreign minister Molotov's humbug over disarmament.
Nevertheless, Shawcross's political career soon ran into difficulties. His smooth efficiency in dealing with legal problems was exemplary - as he showed again in 1948 with his masterly handling of witnesses at the tribunal which led to the resignation of Harold Belcher, Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade, for taking bribes. But in purely political matters Shawcross showed a surprising tendency to make errors of judgment, and became a target for angry criticism both inside and outside the Commons.
The Conservatives charged him with having used the phrase "We are the masters now", in a speech during the Third Reading of a Bill of 1946 to reform trades union law. Shawcross pointed out that the remark followed from his use of a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: " 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be the Master - that is all.' " And Shawcross answered the question: "We are the Masters at the moment."
Whatever the actual phrasing, he later admitted that he had made a disastrous political error. "I've said a lot of bloody stupid things in my life," he observed, "and I think that was the most stupid thing I've ever said." To make matters worse, he came to think that the aim of the Bill - to increase trades union powers - was another grave mistake.
Shawcross was sworn of the Privy Council in 1946, but his propensity to ruffle feathers remained evident - and appeared all the odder because his character was innately courteous and kindly.
In 1946 his comments on alleged distortion and suppression by the "gutter Press" necessitated an apology to Lord Kemsley, while his criticism of judges in the Chancery Division ended in another apology, this time to the House of Commons. Further protest greeted his statement that complaints by the Housewives' League were "impertinent".
Shawcross was appointed President of the Board of Trade in April 1951, after the resignation of Harold Wilson, but his term of office ended with the defeat of the Labour government in the General Election that October.
By that time he had already begun to move to the Right. Though he had originally been on the firebreathing wing of his party, and strongly pro-Russian, his experience of Soviet delegates soon disillusioned him.
When Shawcross resigned as an MP in 1958 (he had represented St Helens since 1945) he pleaded private and family reasons, but it had long been known that he disagreed with many Labour policies; indeed, he had been christened by Bernard Levin "Sir Shortly Floorcross". He later explained that he left party politics mainly because "I found it utterly tedious to have to conform to the doctrine that it is the duty of the opposition to oppose".
Created a life peer as Lord Shawcross in 1959, he sat as a crossbencher in the Lords. Though he spoke frequently, and often controversially, outside the chamber, his reluctance to take up the cudgels with former colleagues meant that he waited 15 years before making his maiden speech, on Hong Kong.
By the 1970s Shawcross had become something of a Jeremiah: Britain was threatened by crime, and must reform; by the prospect of totalitarianism, and must unite under a national government; by the trivialisation of sex, and must abstain from page three of the Sun. He himself, he vouchsafed, received "no pleasure from the photographs of naked breasts".
In 1983 Shawcross joined the Social Democrats, claiming that the founders of the new party were following the lead he had given. But the person he really admired was Mrs Thatcher.
Family values activism
Responsible Society | 'Although he was not strong enough to take part in the Countryside Alliance's Liberty and Livelihood march in 2002, he made a point of signing its "Marching in Spirit" register.'
William Shawcross, son
- Lord Shawcross Daily Telegraph, 12:02AM BST 11 Jul 2003